It’s so frustrating to know that Roman Polanski makes great movies at least in part because he’s such a creep. But so it goes, and here is “The Ghost Writer”: a classic-seeming new thriller with the recriminative gall also to be an inside joke about how we’ve let the real world turn into something like a Roman Polanski movie.
Ominous intrigue ensues when a nameless young writer (Ewan McGregor) steps in for a mysteriously deceased predecessor to massage the memoirs of an embattled former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan), recently self-exiled to a swanky modernist bunker on a slate-gray island off the Massachusetts coast. Turns out the PM’s grim little hideaway, with its devious-seeming characters lurking around every angular corner, is a sanctuary from a CIA rendition scandal and the long arm of the International Criminal Court. And that, as the ghost writer gradually discovers, is just the first thread of a very tangled web. What twisted fun it’ll be to watch the poor bastard get himself stuck in it.
Although adapted by the director and Robert Harris from Harris’ novel, “The Ghost Writer”’s masterfully proportioned combination of unsettling solemnity and deadpan cheek is pure Polanski. However sick we are of seeing his name in headlines, it’s clear that the movies have missed him. With cinematographer Pawel Edelman supplying a leaden atmosphere of exquisite menace, Polanski doesn’t bother with cheap, expected shock tactics. Instead, and with consistently riveting results, he calmly and intelligently assembles the rather quaintly old-fashioned paranoia of movie-thriller-style conspiracy. And from the elegantly foreboding opening to the harrowing and gleefully mordant final shot, the old son of a bitch never seems to put a foot wrong. His touch is as pearled as ever.
“The Ghost Writer”’s bag of tricks includes knifelike dialogue, succinct characterization, methodical pacing, a twitch-inducing score by Alexandre Desplat, and what surely must be the most improbably, fantastically cinematic use of an in-car computer navigation system in movies to date. And of course it also has a fine group of actors. With this arguable career-best performance, Brosnan stands in not just for Tony Blair (with one dash of Reagan and one of Clinton, too), but also for the notoriously banished filmmaker himself. It’s amazing how much unique vitality he brings to the part of a political proxy, and how keenly he reveals the corrosiveness of public power and charismatic mystique. Meanwhile Olivia Williams, giving everything and nothing away, excels as his tetchy Lady Macbeth-like wife — the fulcrum of the film and its deepest source of mystery. Finally, any lost hope for McGregor’s potential is at last restored by his shrewd but unfussy turn as the appropriately apparitional cipher at this story’s core.
Notwithstanding a few forgivable plausibility problems that are par for such a course, “The Ghost Writer” hums right along with its maker’s surety and muted showmanship. Never mind weak-link Kim Cattrall as the politico’s executive assistant and mistress; relish instead that tantalizingly too-brief moment between McGregor and Eli Wallach as an island old-timer with some useful and unsettling information. Watch in wonder as Tom Wilkinson turns up at exactly the right time to make short, sharp work of his role as a subtly evasive old crony. And trust in the implied promise here that satisfaction — however sinister — will be guaranteed. All it takes is a great director. Even if he is a creep.